In earlier and later translations, this essay is titled “Of Practice,” but Charles Cotton chose “Use Makes Perfect,” which is fine, but confusing. No matter the title, this essay both shows and tells what an essay should be. It is rare among Montaigne’s essays in that it has a plotted personal story. He was knocked from his horse, fell unconscious, and was so bloodied and unresponsive that his friends figured he was dead. But note that the essay title is not “My Near-Death Experience.” Montaigne has no interest in using his experience for drama. Instead, he launches from it into a consideration of death. The “practice” in the essay is the impossibility of preparing for death except in incomplete ways, such as sleep or losing consciousness. But the beauty of this as a meta-essay is the last third, where Montaigne essentially defends his method of writing, his “rambling and uncertain” style, which, of course, has become an essential quality of the essay form.
This is Montaigne’s last essay, a 25,000-word wonder that travels quite widely between meditations on death, law, medicine, meals, habits, and so forth. Underpinning all of these varied considerations is the question of how and what we may learn from experience, our own and others’. Montaigne reveals all sorts of trivial information about himself—that he seldom dreams, that he dislikes most fruit but likes melons, that he didn’t much like candy when he was young, that he eats voraciously (twice a day, with no snacking between meals), that he likes to scratch the insides of his ears, that he regularly moves his bowels right when he wakes up in the morning—with nary a drop of story from his life. We do learn that he was brought up by common folk, in a village near his father’s estate, but he doesn’t at all seek to create a drama from this (were he alive today, and were his character shallower, he’d be all over that “raised by peasants speaking Latin” angle, and he’d have a bestseller). We also learn, indeed much of the essay is dedicated to the fact, that he has kidney stones, which are often excruciatingly painful. But he never seems to be seeking sympathy. All of this is good enough as example for the aspiring essayist (if such an ideas is not inherently oxymoronic), but the beauty of this essay is that it contains pages and pages of instruction and theory interspersed. One small sample:
No generous mind can stop in itself; it will still tend further and beyond its power; it has sallies beyond its effects; if it do not advance and press forward, and retire, and rush and wheel about, ’tis but half alive; its pursuits are without bound or method; its aliment is admiration, the chase, ambiguity, which Apollo sufficiently declared in always speaking to us in a double, obscure, and oblique sense: not feeding, but amusing and puzzling us. ’Tis an irregular and perpetual motion, without model and without aim; its inventions heat, pursue, and interproduce one another
Cornwallis thinks himself a better or a truer essayist than Montaigne, which is a damn fool thing to say, even if you’re writing only 20 years after the Great One’s death, before his reputation is firmly established. The bulk of this essay is “of books,” and is uninteresting, but the beginning and end offer some minor insights, and it is certainly interesting to see an Englishman adopt the form so soon after Florio’s 1605 translation of Montaigne. Cornwallis does recognize his ignorance and need for honesty, avoiding the urge to preach counsels, instead following his thoughts whither they take him, portraying reality in all its complexity, unadorned.
Culpeper begins his book of essays with this explanation, defining the word essay as “a trial or probation,” offering some metaphors (as buildings require the work of many, so essays include philosophy, history, and other subjects) and praises: “Though [essays] may gather some honey from the best flowers of wit and learning, they have a limitation from none.” He recognizes the greatness of Montaigne and Bacon, and he humbly comments that if his words ever get published, his hope is simply that others might gain from his experiences some of the insight that he has, thus he seems to have the proper attitude for an essayist.
Addison seems more interested in vainglorying in the difficulty of writing essays than in working toward a theory of the form. His opposition is the novel, which, he says, needn’t be quick or to the point. Nevertheless, his advice to essayists to “immediately fall into our subject, and treat every part of it in a lively manner,” is worth heeding. In essence, Addison recommends that essayists keep their readers engaged and make their points quickly. But if an essay doesn’t quite have a point? Addison ends by criticizing readers who don’t like his work, first asserting his imperviousness to their dull wit and ignorance, then crafting a humorous metaphor comparing the ignorant to moles.
Hume divides humanity into elegant and inelegant, which might be akin to white- and blue-collar, given that the elegant are employed in the “operations of the mind.” The elegant are again subdivided into the learned and the conversable. These divisions are detrimental, claims Hume, who sees in their convergence a kind of proto-essayist. This is the “golden mean” of old, a right but unoriginal claim for the essay. As for learning, it comes from experience as much as from books: “Learning has been as great a loser by being shut up in colleges and cells, and secluded from the world.”
For Hunt, the essay requires intimacy with the public, humility, gradualness, “variety of subject and opinion,” love of wisdom; it aspires to provide originality and moral benefit. He holds the essay in high regard, affording the form panaceistic properties. He makes a special note of the essay genre’s summative nature, that one writes from and with the learning of one’s literary and philosophical forebears. Hunt has kind, if brief, words for all of them.
Hazlitt traces the history of the essay from Montaigne through Bacon to Johnson, Addison, Steele, and others prior to his time. Throughout he offers stark opinions on what an essay should not be or do, on how it ought to work, and on which essayists are worth reading. He is long on praise for Montaigne (“the first who had the courage to say as an author what he felt as a man”), prefers Steele to Addison, criticizes Johnson at length and without restraint because his diction never comes down from the clouds. Although many of Hazlitt’s words are directed against the particular essayists and essay-writing habits he dislikes, his rantings are valuable in that they circumscribe a very unpretentious, occasional, open form of essay.
This is not an essay on the essay form, but an essay on stylistic traits of essays, on the language they use, which must “utterly reject not only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose, unconnected, slipshod allusions.” Hazlitt calls for a middle-ground style that is colloquial and casual, but also precise and beautiful. Like his own style, of course.
In this introduction to his Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country, Smith offers a combination of description of his own methods, observation about essays in general, and commendation of Montaigne’s essays as epitomal. From Smith’s somewhat rambling and sometimes redundant treatise, we can glean a quite complete theory of the essay, along with advice and inspiration. The essay is autobiographical, egotistical (but this is not a bad thing), thoughtful, emotional, quotidian (Smith returns to this idea again and again, perhaps to justify his leisurely life), open, reflexive, ruminative, and lyrical. His mantra seems to be that “the world is everywhere whispering essays.”
teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio University in 2004; during his studies he was a Fulbright fellow in Uruguay. His recent essays are published in Northwest Review, Portland Magazine, and River Teeth, and forthcoming in Fourth Genre, The Iowa Review, and The Best American Spiritual Writing 2007.